Case number: OIC-102951-H9N9D4

Whether the HSE was justified in refusing access, under section 15(1)(c) of the Act, to details of all purchase orders over €20,000 for the period 2018, 2019, and for the first three quarters of 2020 for the University Limerick Hospital Group on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, its work

19 March 2021

Background

On 13 November 2020, the applicant submitted a request to University Hospital Limerick for a list/database/or spreadsheet of all purchase orders of over €20,000 for the period 2018, 2019 and for the first three quarters of 2020. On 23 November 2020, the HSE informed the applicant that it noted he had sent the same request to Croom, Nenagh and Ennis Hospitals. It informed him that its Information Governance Office (the IGO) was managing the request centrally on behalf of the University Limerick Hospital Group (the Hospital Group).

In its decision dated 30 November 2020, the HSE refused the request for information relating to the Hospital Group, including University Hospital Limerick, under section 15(1)(c) on the ground that processing the request would require the retrieval and examination of such a number of records as to cause a disruption to the work of parts of the Hospital Group.

The applicant sought an internal review of that decision, wherein he contended that the issue of the request being voluminous should not arise on the basis that the information sought should already be publicly available under the publication scheme that each public body is required to publish under section 8 of the Act. On 27 January 2021, the HSE issued its internal review decision wherein it affirmed the original decision on the request. On 29 January 2021, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the HSE’s decision.

I have now completed my review in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act. In carrying out my review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the HSE and the applicant as set out above and to the correspondence between this Office and both parties on the matter. I have decided to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with whether the HSE was justified in its decision to refuse, under section 15(1)(c), the applicant's request for details of certain purchase orders for the Hospital Group.

Analysis and Findings

Section 15(1)(c) provides that an FOI body may refuse to grant a request if it considers that granting the request would, by reason of the number or nature of the records concerned or the nature of the information concerned, require the retrieval and examination of such number of records or an examination of such kind of records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, work (including disruption of work in a particular functional area) of the body.

However, section 15(4) of the Act provides that a request cannot be refused under section 15(1)(c) unless the body has assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it no longer falls to be refused under that section.

In response to a request for clarification from this Office during the course of the review, the HSE said that the original decision maker was aware from discussions with colleagues in some of the other Hospital Groups that the applicant had been offered the opportunity to amend his request(s) as the search and retrieval of the records he had requested would require a significant number of man hours, which would mean that staff could not continue to carry out their normal functions in a timely or effective manner. It said the Hospital Group itself did not engage with the applicant on the request in order to narrow the scope of the request. It accepted that the decision maker should have also offered the applicant the opportunity to narrow the scope of his request prior to refusing it under section 15(1)(c) of the Act.

The provisions of the FOI Act are clear. A public body cannot refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it no longer falls to be refused under section 15(1)(c). The decision maker did not do so in this case, nor was the decision maker entitled to rely on engagements made on other, separate requests. I find, therefore, that the HSE did not comply with the provisions of section 15(4) in this case.

In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the most appropriate course of action to take is to annul the decision of the HSE and to direct it to undertake a fresh consideration of the request. If the HSE intends to rely on section 15(1)(c) in making its new decision, it must comply with the requirements of section 15(4) beforehand.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul the decision of the HSE to refuse the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c) and I direct it to consider the request afresh.

Right of Appeal

Section 24 of the FOI Act sets out detailed provisions for an appeal to the High Court by a party to a review, or any other person affected by the decision. In summary, such an appeal, normally on a point of law, must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.

 

Stephen Rafferty

Senior Investigator